Doug Moo on Colossians and Philemon

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon by Douglas Moo. Nottingham: Apollos, 2008     471 pp     h/b     £29.99     ISBN: 978-1-84474-341-4

So what does Moo make of Colossians? It was written by Paul (contra c. 60% of New Testament scholars). Good start! Following Clinton Arnold, Moo thinks (tentatively, we can’t be completely sure) that the false teaching in Colossae was a syncretistic mix of local folk belief, local folk Judaism, and false notions of Christianity; not a pure form of any particular identifiable philosophy, but a blend of different elements. Persuasive. He has some excellent observations on the text: the deliberate parallels between the thanksgiving section of chapter 1 and the prayer; Paul’s use of thanksgiving, convinced that ‘true gratitude for God’s grace is an important “offensive” measure against the false teaching’; a good discussion of the intractable problem of what ‘the elements of the world’ means in 2:8; why the realised eschatology in 2:12 does not imply non-Pauline authorship; why the most difficult verse in the book (2:18) is about worship offered to angels not by angels. 2:6-7 is confirmed as the heart and hinge of the book as a whole.

One oft-repeated comment Moo makes is that there is no direct reference to the Old Testament Law in Colossians. I don’t think I was quite convinced by this given the references to circumcision in the letter (which he claims are ‘very incidental’) and the ‘questions of food and drink… a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’ in 2:16, which is almost entirely explained away here on the basis that there is no direct reference to the Mosaic Law in Colossians so this can’t be one (though it does indicate Jewish influence apparently). I was a bit confused by this. I was also confused by some of the contortions on 3:18 concerning marriage, especially regarding the word ‘be subject’ (i.e. wives to your husbands), since more time seems to be spent here justifying Moo’s view that men ‘will often “submit” to their [wife’s] needs, desires, and wishes’, which he (erroneously in my view) bases on Ephesians 5:21. Though he shows that the Greek word here is used to describe ‘putting oneself under authority’ in the case of believers and God, humans and the government, slaves and masters, children and parents, and says that husbands rightly exhibit some leadership in marriage, he seems more concerned to promote the view that Paul ‘sets a trajectory that leads to a more equal sharing of all dimensions of the marriage relationship.’ He rightly critiques The Message translation of ‘understand and support your husbands’, as too weak, but I was left wondering whether he had not in fact reversed the meaning of the text in his own exposition of it, or at least moved along that trajectory (sic).

Slavery, says Prof. Moo, ‘is ultimately incompatible with consistent biblical teaching, and it is to the church’s great discredit that it took so long to recognize that fact.’ There is an interesting discussion of this in the Philemon section, where he concludes that even though Paul does not say so, we can draw the conclusion from what he says that it is not right to own slaves. The influence of W.J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is apparent here. Ultimately, however, he is clear that the book is not actually about slavery and its abolition, but more about fellowship in the gospel.  He also make a case that Philemon 6 is not about evangelism (despite the way it is translated in the NIV, ESV, RSV, and NRSV).

Professor Carson tells us in the Preface to expect ‘transparent hints as to the bearing of the biblical texts on today’s church.’ I confess to being a little disappointed that there are not more of these to help the preacher. Though perhaps I just didn’t get the hints.  Still, this is a worthy shelf-mate for the classics on Colossians by F.F. Bruce and P.T. O’Brien.

This review was first published in Churchman 126/4 (2012).

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